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Robert Trivers

DJB: Do you believe that life may have evolved on other planets and star systems, and if so, what possible courses of evolution do you think they might have taken that would be different from our own?

ROBERT: I do believe that life has almost certainly evolved elsewhere. Our best understanding of astronomy and of the origin of life on this planet suggests that there are plenty of stars that are appropriate, plenty of planets presumed around those stars that are appropriate.

DJB: Several years ago, Nobel prize winner Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule, wrote a book entitled Life Itself, in which he proposes the idea that life may have been seeded on our planet by a species of higher intelligence than our own, through the use of genetically engineered spores that are blown through space by radiation pressures. In the light of our own species’ progress with genetic engineering, do you think this is a possible explanation for how life originated on our planet, and if so, do you think it is possible that evolution may, in some sense, be developing according to a particular plan?

ROBERT: I think it’s possible. I don’t quite see the gain to the other organism in doing this process. The seeding of the earth, according to our understanding, would have then occurred about four billion years ago, and it took four billion years to produce creatures as humble as ourselves. We can’t do yet what Crick is saying the other creature can do. So after four billion years they still ain’t got nothing that matches themselves. I don’t quite know what the function of this would be.

RMN: There is much concern these days about the problems of over-population. It seems that the survival of the human species, and possibly the planet, may now depend upon our ability to limit reproduction. As natural selection theory depends upon the idea of reproductive success being the main goal of evolution, what are your views on this?

ROBERT: I think that, next to nuclear warfare, it’s probably the best candidate for driving us to extinction, perhaps in conjunction with nuclear warfare, of any of the possible candidates. I think a lot will depend on how far we deplete resources before we reverse the population explosion, assuming we finally reach a stage where we do. Certainly at some point we have to limit reproduction to a ZPG, zero population growth, or steady-state. We know that from elementary considerations.

When I think about the future in that regard, which I do very rarely, I imagine the next hundred years will be crucial in determining what we have to bring ourselves back from. In other words, do we all go the road of India before realizing that there are unfortunate consequences of depleting your natural resources. In India you can go to these beautiful geological strata, four thousand feet up, the mountains and hills near Bombay for example. You see the complete deforestation of these areas, which leads to the alternate cycle of floods, where hundreds and thousands die in floods, and then tremendous periods of drought.

I remember coming back down from this place, going towards Bombay, and there are these Mangrove-like trees that send out roots from their lowest limbs, and goats were reaching up on their hind legs, and nibbling the growing tips of these roots, that far from the ground, and they weren’t going to reach the ground, because there was always going to be enough goats to keep them from reaching the ground. So the trees weren’t going to grow anymore, and it just seemed like ecological chaos. So anyway, when I think about the future at all, I imagine will we do away with the Brazilian forest? Will we do away with whole areas of the earth, and then face what it’s like to have ten to twelve billion people on this planet? Or will things get under control before then?

DJB: Bob, do you think it’s possible that the introduction of psyche-active plants into the food chain of early primates had any influence on our evolutionary development? Terence McKenna thinks that psilocybin mushrooms catalyzed the enlargement of the neocortex and the development of language. Roland Fisher has shown that low doses of psilocybin increase visual acuity.

ROBERT: I don’t imagine it’s had any, or much of an evolutionary effect.

RMN: Do you have a theory about why the brain size of Home sapiens increased so rapidly over such a short period of time?

ROBERT: I don’t have any particular theory, no. It seems to me obvious that it must have been bound up primarily with language. Which is another great unique development in our own lineage. We know now of animal languages, and in primates we know that various species do use some sounds

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